In such uncertain times, it's no surprise that more and more people are struggling with their mental health. While one in four people will experience some sort of mental health issue each year, one in six say they suffer a common mental health problem each week (like anxiety or depression).1
Peer support is not a new concept. But it is one that holds huge potential for local councils. Research shows that peer support can significantly improve service users’ well-being. They have fewer hospital stays for any reason. They grow in their self-esteem and support networks. In sum, peer support leads to better health outcomes for people with mental health needs.2
At its very core, peer support is about hope and strengths. Peer support is proof that healing is possible. Peer supporters personally relate to the struggles of the people they help. In this way, they offer a kind of reciprocal support other specialists cannot.
We were looking for just this kind of person-centred approach for our residents. We wanted a way to help them beyond the traditional offer where there was no hierarchy. We needed a service for people who might otherwise not accept support.
We set up our peer mentor service in 2014. Our peer mentors are trained to use their lived experience to help people with mental health needs. Their role aims to prevent the need for higher levels of support.
Peer mentors support service users an average of 2-3 hours a week, working alongside clinical and social care teams in Southwark. They help the service user to overcome any barriers that they may face with support and advice. This may include going along to appointments or helping with day-to-day tasks.
Up until 2020 we commissioned external partners to run our service. We brought the service in-house to help develop our offer. Since putting a dedicated coordinator in post, the number of peer mentors has more than doubled. Satisfaction rates remain high and two service users are being supported to volunteer within their community.
So, what is key for local councils to unlock the potential of peers in mental health support? Our peer mentor service is set up in three distinct ways.
Firstly, our peer mentors are paid over the London Living Wage (£14.38 per hour) for the irreplaceable work that they do. This is because we want them to be valued like any other mental health specialist. It also means being a peer mentor is a pathway back into work or change in career following mental ill health. Many of our mentors go on to full-time positions as support workers.
Secondly, the service user is the employer of their peer mentor. They pay for the service via their personal budgets, with support from the council and other providers. This centres service users’ choice and control. Empowerment is crucial.
Thirdly, peer mentors and service users are in the driving seat as much as we are. Peer mentors are involved in choosing new mentors. Service users will choose from peer mentor profiles who they feel they would like to work with. Both parties will determine together how their relationship will work. Co-production has to be genuine.
Peer support is enhancing mental health services in Southwark right across the piece. We have a strong network of peer support across the council, the voluntary sector, and the local NHS. We work in partnership, setting up a joint providers’ forum and now established pathways for volunteers to become paid peer mentors with our service.
The impact is broad; better access to support, new career paths, and improved health outcomes for people with mental health needs. So it’s not hard to see why we champion peer support in Southwark. It is a uniquely valuable resource for everyone involved; from service users and mentors, to local councils looking for ways to support stronger communities.
‘My peer mentor is really empathetic. It helps to talk through what I’m up against with someone who understands. It can be easy to be down on yourself, but my peer mentor helps me see how far I have come. I now have a job and being able to return to work has been a massive achievement for me. Peer mentoring should be national. People often do not have the support around them.’
Service user with Southwark Council’s peer mentor service.
Salil Meech Mazumdar is service manager (mental health), Adult Social Care, Southwark LBC